Caloric Requirements of Superheroes

By Scott Mattison (@FoolsPizza)

The average person burns around 2000 calories a day. This approximation is found on pretty much every food wrapper when they provide your “estimated daily values”. Superheroes aren’t average people and likely need an above average caloric intake. Below are some very basic approximations to determine the number of Calories a superhero burns when using their power for 1 minute

calories
Number of Calories burned per minute by various superheroes.

If you are still reading, you are probably curious how I came up with these values. So let’s go through them based on their powers. First of all I should probably define what a Calorie is. Calories are a unit measure of energy and Calories as reported on food are actually 1000 calories (with a lower case “c”). 1 calorie is the energy required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water 1 degree Celsius.

Flash & Dash

Both Flash and Dash’s caloric requirements are based on estimated VO2 maximum converted to Calories. VO2 max is the measurement of the maximum possible oxygen that may be utilized during exercise. I estimated VO2 max using ACMS running VO2 equation which provides a very rough approximation based on body weight, speed, and incline.  So to calculate VO2 max, I needed to first find the top speed of Flash and Dash.

The Flash’s top speed varies wildly in the comic books, sometimes being shown as capable of running faster than the speed of light other times he has a maximum speed around Mach 3 (three times the speed of sound, or 1029 m/s).

Dash is a bit harder to estimate as there is much less data to work from, but I based my estimation on the scene in “The Incredibles” where Dash gets caught on camera placing a tack on the teacher’s chair. The camera which is likely updating between 24 and 30 frames per second and Dash traverses the distance from the back of the room to the teachers desk and back (roughly 30 feet) within one camera frame so I estimate Dash’s top speed to be 220 m/s. This is reasonable as we never see Dash break the sound barrier in either Incredibles movie.

Wolverine

Wolverine was probably the hardest to estimate and is most likely the most incorrect of all of my approximations; however, if anything, this estimate is low. Wolverine’s primary power is a healing factor that allows him to recover from almost any injury. The speed at rate his healing factor works is a little bit of a debate, so I have to make some assumptions. I settled on the assumption that Wolverine can heal a broken bone in a minute. (This is obviously a little silly since his bones are practically unbreakable due to the Adamantium bonded to them).

The energy expended by the body due to injury is also difficult to estimate, but many sources recommend an increased intake of 400-500 Calories per day while healing from a broken bone and it takes 6 – 8 weeks for the body to repair a minor fracture. Thus it takes ~16800 Calories for the body to repair a broken bone.

Batman

Batman may not have any super powers (except maybe always having a plan somehow), but he is trained in several forms of hand to hand combat. A quick search estimates that a high intensity martial arts session may burn up to 960 Calories in 30 minutes.

Jean Grey

Jean Grey’s powers of telepathy allow her to lift objects with her mind. Lifting any object requires energy in the form of weight of the object multiplied by the height the object is lifted. When not The Phoenix, Jean Grey has demonstrated the ability to lift objects up to nearly 50 tons. Assuming she lifts this weight at a rate of 10 meters per minute (possibly a low estimate) this would required 1063 Calories of energy.

Bonus: Scott Summers aka Cyclops

This blog post was originally conceived around the idea that Cyclops’ optic blasts would require an insane amount of energy to sustain. However, during my initial research I learned that Cyclops is not actually emitting lasers from his eyes, but is instead opening an aperture to another dimension and allowing energy from that dimension to enter ours. So yeah, you learn something new every day. However, going with my original idea, what would happen if someone like Cyclops existed that could actually emit lasers from their eyes (like Superman, but not solar powered).

Cyclops’ optic blasts emit 2 Gigawatts of energy (2 * 109 Joules/second). There are 4184 Joules in a Calorie, which means that in one minute, our Cyclops equivalent would burn 28680688 Calories

Do Professor Xavier and Magneto Have the Same Base Power?

By Scott Mattison (@FoolsPizza)

Before we dive into this, I must first admit that I am not an avid reader of the X-men comics; however, I have really enjoyed a lot of the X-men movies, specifically X-men: First Class. Throughout the X-men series, Charles Xavier and Eric Leschner have often been depicted as two sides of the same coin, both working to further the cause of mutants. Xavier believing that advancing the mutants’ cause must be done (mostly) through working with humans and finding common ground; whereas Magneto believes that mutants and humans are destined to be enemies that mutant rights can only be ensured through force. I am sure there are many others out that could have a much more thorough discussion regarding the symbolism and underlying messages that are rooted the relationship between these two characters; however, I am here to pose a much more important theory. Magneto and Professor Xavier share the same base ability: the manipulation of magnetic fields.

Xavmags
Magneto and Charles Xavier discussing their world views. All Marvel characters and the distinctive likeness(es) thereof are Trademarks & Copyright © 1941–2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

I am not going to waste time arguing that the manipulation of magnetic fields is Magneto’s power, it is literally in his name! Now for the harder one, Charles Xavier.

In the X-men comics Professor Xavier is depicted have the ability to both read the minds of others as well as implant thoughts into the brains of others through what is known as telepathy. Telepathy is the communication of thoughts and ideas between individuals without the use of the traditional senses. Most of you are thinking Charles Xavier is a known telepath, how you could possibly argue that manipulation of magnetic fields is his power? The answer to this question are two fundamental laws of physics, Ampere’s Law and Faraday’s Law of Induction.

Let’s start with Ampere’s Law. Ampere’s Law defines the generation of magnetic fields due to electricity. Ampere’s Law states that magnetic fields may be generated by the motion of an electrical current or by changing electrical fields.

Our thoughts are complex firings of neurons within the brain, transferring electrical potentials from one brain cell to another. One way scientists study the brain is by tracking these electrical potentials through what is known as electroencephalography (EEG). An alternative to EEG is called magnetoencephalography (MEG) and tracks the small magnetic fields generated when neurons are communicating. This is a practical application of Ampere’s Law. From this, we see two possible ways that Charles Xavier could be telepathically reading the minds of others, either through interpretation of the electric fields (similar to a really fancy EEG) or the interpretation of the magnetic fields (a really fancy MEG). We still do not know how he could possibly place thoughts into the minds of others.

490px-VFPt_Solenoid_correct2.svg
An illustration of the the relationship between electricity and magnetism. The arrows represent the magnetic field generated by the current moving through a wire wound around a center axis. The circles represent the cross section of a wire. Source: Wikipedia

For the answer to this, we go back to physics, our good friend Faraday, and his law of induction. Faraday’s Law of Induction states that any change in the magnetic environment of a coil of wire will cause a voltage to be induced in the coil. This means that by changing a magnetic field, we can actually cause the generation of electricity. If the firing of neurons is just changes in voltage potentials across the neuron cells, this means that a magnetic field could cause a neuron to fire.

In fact, this has been demonstrated in medical science. The FDA actually places limitations for how fast the magnetic field inside of an MRI machine can change to prevent muscle spasms in patients.Additionally, there are new fields treatments for depression and anxiety being developed that use targeted magnetic fields to stimulate regions of the brain. So far, these approaches have been shown to be highly targeted and extremely safe. (Author’s Note: MRI machines are extremely safe and none of the discussed technologies could in anyway control your mind).

Scientists are still working to map the complex neural interactions that occur in the brain. While research has begun to be able to map out emotional responses and regions of the brain linked to various types of thought, we are still a long way from reading someone’s mind. However, despite current limitations of science, by combining the concepts of Faraday’s Law and Ampere’s Law we can see that Professor Xavier could gain the abilities of telepathy from a very precise control and interpretation of remote magnetic fields. Of course there are alternate interpretations, Xavier could easily be manipulating and reading the electrical fields in the brains of others. Perhaps more concerning is that regardless of whether or not Xavier can control magnetic fields, with a little practice Magneto could definitely gain the abilities of telepathy.

Beer Today, Gone Tomorrow

By N. Ace Pugh (@DrAcePugh)

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently published their report on the possible consequences of global climate change.  Left unchecked and without necessary corrective steps the world will not avoid its most dire effects.

I highly recommend reading this report, at the very least looking at the policymaker summary. The outlook is grim. Imagine, if you will, a nigh-apocalyptic scenario: sea levels rise, storms intensify, forest fires become both more common and more deadly, coral reefs die off, and tropical diseases such as malaria become much more common. Do you also want a side of widespread famine, wars over water (but see), uninhabitable Middle East with that order? Sure thing. Humanity always aims to please. Wealthy, temperate countries such as the United States will likely be less affected at first, which is incredibly unfair because the U.S. and other first world nations disproportionately contributed to the problem. Nonetheless, the consequences of climate change will affect everyone, and the U.S. is no exception. We should all be extremely concerned.

fig1
It’s going to be a real scorcher. [Source]

The very real doom and gloom of climate change is already widely reported, albeit not to the degree that it perhaps should. Future citizens of the world, should society survive in its current form, will ultimately judge how we respond to this threat. I’m not here to write an entire post extolling the virtue of taking personal steps to reduce your own environmental impact while (much more importantly) calling for you to vote for representatives that will rein in large corporations and act against climate change, although you should certainly do those things. No, I’d rather focus on one solitary consequence of climate change and save that larger discussion for a different time.

Today’s blog post is about an interesting, plant breeding-centric revelation that I’ve stumbled across in my internet meanderings and I believe it is of the utmost importance that I share it with you. Speaking of which, you may want to grab a frothy glass of your favorite craft beer before you read the rest of this post. In fact, get an entire six-pack ready.

Fig2
Drink. It. In. [Source]

Climate change is coming for our beer. Yes, you read that correctly folks. A recent study published in Nature Plants that was conducted by Xie et al. has concluded that beer is likely to skyrocket in price due to growing conditions becoming inhospitable to barley as a consequence of climate change. Beer prices will likely increase drastically, and that is a direct result of the decreased availability of barley. Using a combination of different models, the researchers found that barley yield losses are going to range from 3% to 17% depending on the severity of the actual conditions we experience (i.e., how much we do to address climate change). Beer consumption will go down in many countries and the price increases are likely to be quite high. For example, Xie et al. predicted price increases of almost 200% in Ireland (better stockpile that Guinness).

 

Fig3
Changes in beer consumption and price under increasingly severe drought–heat events. Each column presents the results for the ten most affected countries in the regional aggregation of this study. a–d, Absolute change in the total volume of beer consumed. e–h, Change in beer price per 500 ml. i–l, Change in annual beer consumption per capita. The severity of extreme events increases from top to bottom. The length of the bars for each RCP shows average changes of all modeled extreme events years from 2010 to 2099, which are shown to the left of each bar, and the colors of the bars represent per-capita gross domestic product (see color scale). Whiskers indicate the 25th and 75th percentiles of all changes (n = 17, 77, 80 and 139 extreme events under RCP2.6, RCP4.5, RCP6.0 and RCP8.5, respectively; see percentage changes with full range for all main beer-consuming countries in Supplementary Figs. 26–28; absolute changes in Supplementary Figs. 30–32). (Adapted from Xie et al, 2018)

 

As you can see, the situation becomes worse when conditions are most intense (four different climate scenarios were tested). These findings are sure to sound quite terrifying to any fellow beer connoisseurs, since the beverage is usually loved for its affordability as well as its taste. If beer is as expensive, or more so, than wine and lower end liquor, its popularity will likely wane.

Unfortunately, there are few alternatives to barley. Most of the breweries that you’re familiar with rely on the crop. However, those of you that are on gluten-free diets may already be aware of one alternative that is near and dear to yours truly: sorghum! Yes, sorghum can be used in the brewing of beer, although beer made from sorghum is not very popular in the U.S. Those that have tasted it will note that the flavor is not comparable to most of the more popular beers with which we’re familiar.  While this is purely subjective, I happen to agree that it simply doesn’t have the necessary ‘bite’ that you expect in a good craft beer (I could never be accused of being a shill for “Big Sorghum” when it comes to my beer preferences). That isn’t to say sorghum beer doesn’t have popularity elsewhere, particularly in many African countries.

 

Fig4
Sorghum: The hero that we need, but not the hero that we deserve. Image Credit: N. Ace Pugh (Texas A&M University)

 

Nevertheless, sorghum and sorghum beer will likely need to become more attractive to producers and brewers, respectively, as the possible range for growing barley becomes more and more limited. While the beer it leads to is quite different in taste, sorghum can withstand drought and heat comparatively better. Whether or not the sorghum beer will become more palatable to U.S. consumers in the future is difficult to say. We simply don’t know. No matter how you slice it, a world that is inhospitable to barley is a world inhospitable to beer as most Americans currently know it. If the introduction of this blog post wasn’t enough to concern you, perhaps our impending beer crisis will.

How will we know if we’ve found Martian microbes?

By Reed Stubbendieck (@bactereedia)

curiosity
Figure 1. Curiosity Mars Rover taking a selfie. [Source]
Drew’s recent blog post spurred a conversation between the two of us about the first extraterrestrial life that humans will encounter. In the end, we both agreed that when/if humans discover aliens, they’ll most likely be microbial.

We are not alone in this assertion. At this very moment, the NASA Mars rover Curiosity (Fig. 1) is currently roaming the surface of the red planet using its suite of instruments to detect and characterize organic molecules that could be indicative of life from ancient aqueous environments. Intriguingly, data already collected by Curiosity has indicated that there are environments on Mars that may have once been habitable for microbial life!

Unfortunately, Curiosity is unable to directly detect living microbes, which begs the question: how will we really know that we’ve found genuine alien microbes?

To address this question, we first need to review the seven fundamental characteristics of life. All living organisms 1) are composed of cells, 2) are ordered, 3) grow, 4) reproduce, 5) pass down genetic information, 6) possess homeostasis, and 7) possess metabolism. In this post, we will consider how growth, reproduction, genetic information, and metabolism are currently used by scientists to detect life both on Earth and in the greater universe.

First and foremost, I am a microbiologist and prefer to follow an old proverb that states, “seeing is believing”. Thus, I would personally be most convinced of life on Mars if I saw an alien microbial colony emerge from a sample cultured on a Petri dish, which would demonstrate the necessary characteristics of growth and reproduction. However, unfortunately this level of evidence is most likely untenable for the foreseeable future.

As an example, on Earth if you directly count the number of bacterial cells from an environmental sample, such as soil or ocean water, using a microscope and then culture that sample on a Petri plate, only ~1% of those bacterial cells will form a visible colony. This phenomenon is known as “The Great Plate Count Anomaly” and has plagued microbiology since its inception. The anomaly is partially caused by how bacteriological medium is prepared, but is more majorly a result of our lack of understanding the nutritional requirements for different individual bacterial cells. Put another way, if we don’t know what Martian microbes like to eat, then we’ll be unable to coax them to reveal themselves.

iChip
Figure 2. The iChip after being removed from the ground. [Source]
On Earth, we’ve developed methods that circumvent and accommodate these picky eaters. For instance, the isolation chip (iChip, Fig. 2) is a relatively recent technology that allows microbes to be cultured in situ (at the place of their origin). This device works by trapping individual microbial cells into tiny wells that are sandwiched between semipermeable membranes. The membranes allow the passage of molecules between the trapped cells and their environment. Thus, the iChip allows microbes to access the nutrients they require without requiring scientists to determine specific requirements and formulate special media. This approach has been used to cultivate up to 50% of the microbes in a soil sample, which led to the discovery of a new antibiotic scaffold from a previously uncultivable bacteria!

Alternatively, as direct culture is a bottleneck for identifying living microbes, culture-independent approaches based on DNA sequencing have exploded in the field of microbial ecology. The primary approach that is used is called amplicon sequencing, which allow us to use specific DNA sequences as barcodes to identify different microbes. An alternative approach is to sequence all of the DNA present in a sample. This approach is called metagenomics and has been used to characterize the genes that are present in different environments on Earth. An advantage of metagenomics over amplicon sequencing is the ability to assemble entire intact genome sequences from environmental samples!

kate_rubins_nanopore
Figure 3. Astronaut Kate Rubins using the Oxford Nanopore MinION Sequencer in Space [Source]
Though once prohibitively expensive and technically challenging, advancements have rapidly decreased the cost of DNA sequencing and shrunken sequencers from the size of a refrigerator to a device that can fit in your hand (which has even been used in space, Fig. 3)! Thus, it may soon be possible to equip our future rovers with their own tiny sequencers. However, there are still important hurdles to overcome before implementing DNA sequence technology. First, direct DNA sequencing can’t distinguish between living and dead microbes. Further, contamination with microbes or microbial DNA from Earth may confound our analyses. Finally, a practical consideration is sampling throughput (the amount of samples that can be processed in a given period of time) and reagent usage.

Whether we attempt to directly culture microbes or sequence their DNA from Martian samples, there’s another practical consideration to discuss: where do we sample? As mentioned above, our rovers will likely carry only a limited amount of reagents for bacterial culture or DNA sequencing. Thus, we need to determine a method to narrow our search space for microbes: we need to identify biosignatures of life.

Fortunately, Curiosity is already equipped with instruments that detect organic molecules. Remember, all living organisms possess metabolism, perhaps we can follow molecules like methane as biosignatures and locate microbes. Unfortunately, because Mars has no atmosphere, the planet surface is bombarded with ultraviolet light, which may destroy volatile biosignatures.

sagan_and_viking
Figure 4. Carl Sagan posing next to a model of a Viking Lander in Death Valley, California. [Source]
As an alternative, we can attempt to identify biosignatures under controlled conditions. One such method was employed in the 1970s during the Viking program. As part of this program, two landers (Fig. 4) were sent to Mars with the mission to search for evidence of life. One experiment performed by the landers was called “Labeled Release”. A Martian soil sample was combined with a mixture of seven radioactive 14C-labeled nutrients and monitored for production of labeled carbon dioxide (14CO2) gas, which would suggest that living organisms had consumed the nutrients and produced the gas as a waste product. The experiment gave mixed results: though both landers initially produced positive results, repeated injections of the labeled nutrients failed to yield additional 14CO2. Though controversial, it is now believed that the 14COobserved in these experiments was produced abiotically. Perhaps future experiments will combine radioactive labeling with culturing or sequencing to identify microbes.

The above list of approaches to identify life is by no means exhaustive. However, I hope this post has highlighted the difficulties that scientists face not only in our search for extraterrestrial life in the universe, but also in characterizing the vast diversity of terrestrial microbes that inhabit on our own planet!

Will you ever meet ET?

By Andrew Anderson (@AndersonEvolve)

One of my favorite shows is Firefly−if you haven’t heard of it, check it out. An aspect of the show I found enjoyable was, despite being science fiction, it explicitly stated there were no known aliens across the regions humans had expanded to. The thought of seeing the results of evolution on another planet would be amazing, and the mental games trying guess at what that life might look like are enjoyable. In reality though, I don’t think we will ever encounter alien life*, much less intelligent life, for a long while (>1000s of years) if at all. I am hardly the first to make such a claim, but I would like to bring up some of the reasons I don’t think we’ll encounter extraterrestrials within anyone’s lifetime.

The best place to start is with Drake’s Equation (see link for details), it’s basically a probabilistic statement made up of dependent chance events and time components. 

eq

Therefore, the chance of each successive event is multiplied by the previous then multiplied by the time that all chance events have occurred. As you can see the Drake Equation includes 6 conditions that have to be met, making the odds of an outcome lower with each condition (e.g. rolling a 1-5 on a die occurs ⅚ of the time, but doing it 6 successive times happens ~⅓ of the time). What’s more, we have no idea what the probabilities are for the later parts of the equation. The rate of star formation and the fraction of stars with planets are able to be reasonably estimated. Everything else is challenging to define. The big issue is we have a sample size of 1. We only know of one planet that formed life, evolved intelligent life, and sent signals−Earth. This is a two-fold problem. If I drew a number at random, what was the probability of drawing that number? Without knowing either how many draws it took or what range of numbers I had to choose from, you cannot know. Additionally, we now have what is known as a sample bias. While we are piecing together how life got started here, is that the ONLY way? Once life begins developing on a planet, what is the likelihood intelligent life appears? We might conclude it’s 100% given what happened on Earth, but remember the majority of Earth’s history is dominated by non-intelligent life*. Humans are a relative blip on the history of life and there’s no evidence that other groups evolved intelligent life. Were it not for a well-timed meteor, there still might not be intelligent life. All of this is to say, we’re not sure how to define all the portions of Drake’s Equation, so anyone claiming it supports their idea (even one saying it’s not possible) is on unstable ground.

Now we can get into some fun probabilistic concepts. Drake’s Equation doesn’t offer much help, but it comes down to a fairly simple question: is Earth, and the process of life on it, rare or common? Some would invoke the mediocrity principle, that is if you only have one observation, it is more likely you observed a common event than a rare one. Imagine it’s your first time snorkeling on a reef; the fish you see are probably the more common fish on the reef. The problem with this is, since we are alive, we had to come from a planet that met the criterion for life, so there is no way our limited observations would NOT include a planet with life on it. I actually think life on Earth could be more along the lines of the Wyatt Earp Effect; given the amount of attempts (planets in this case) it is an almost certainty that 1 will hit on the rare event. Wyatt Earp was notorious for winning gun fights without getting hurt, but given the number of gunfighters and gunfights, someone had to survive multiple gun fights through sheer luck. So life forming could be rare, but it happened at some point and, since we’re here, we see that outcome.

My point so far is we have no idea what the odds of life are, and I acknowledge that my suspicion it’s rare is just that, a suspicion. I think life likely does exist somewhere else out there, but we won’t see it anytime soon because: physics. Let’s assume there is a planet we want to check out for life. There’s a candidate at our nearest star ~4 light years away. Let’s assume that we have a spacecraft right now capable of traveling ~2% the speed of light, the current record is ~1.5%. That means it would take 200 years to reach the planet, plus 4 more just to hear if they found anything. Even if we hit on our first pass, it still wouldn’t happen in our lifetime. Our ability to detect non-sentient life is severely limited and there are no ways to be certain other than direct exploration.

Instead we would have to hope that lifeforms on another planet are sending some signal we can detect, which means they are likely intelligent, or they are likewise looking for life*. Radio waves are electromagnetic waves and travel at the speed of light but there is a delay. Try to imagine a conversation on Messenger where you only see what was written 4 years ago, that’s what it would be like to converse with our nearest star (Alpha Centari could only now tell us how they felt about Lost). This also makes Sci-Fi movies amusing with how communication and observation of events unfold (think about every intense radio conversation in space and how far apart they were–likely they were getting that message minutes or hours after it was sent). Humans have only been sending out signals for ~100 years which means only things 50 light years away could be responding at this point (travel to and from) which is 1/2000 of the distance of the Milky Way. We’ve only been listening for 50 years which means some civilization has to be sending signals at the right time to have them reach Earth in this exact range of listening time*. Consider a planet looking at Earth but is on the other side of the Milky Way, they would not find anything and have to wait 100,000 years just to hear it. All of this assumes we know what to look for or what to broadcast.

In order for us to find life it would have to be close, sentient, and signaling. While the universe is incredibly large, we’ve now severely narrowed our search window, which means life has to form easily and evolve intelligence frequently if we are to see it while you and I are here. I just don’t think that probable. Got something to add or something I missed?* Give me tweet!

Post-Script:

Scott Mattison (@FoolsPizza) added some thoughts (* in text, his thoughts in italics) that should be shared and responded to (my thoughts in bold).

  • I imagine we will find microbial life on colonized planets. I mean, we think we might have bacterial life on other planets in our local system This seems most likely, although we don’t have every step down for the formation. What we do know doesn’t seem like something any other planet would have gone through in its formation. 
  • Non-intelligent or non-sentient or just not up to our levels. It could be reasonably argued multiple forms of sentient life developed on Earth. Humans just won the competition. (Neanderthals vs. Homo sapiens). Also there is the question of intelligence level of apes and dolphins which clearly can learn communicative behaviors In this context I equate intelligence with the ability to send and detect signals to space. This is not at all the correct definition, but for a short piece it’s the easiest term I can think of. Yes, this means humans didn’t become intelligent until quite recently.
  • Fermi paradox –It starts with supposition that life is common and we should see them. I don’t agree with the premise.
  • This gets even worse. EM waves decrease intensity as they spread out through space through the inverse square law (not that inverse square law, the other one).Essentially intensity decreases on the order of distance squared. So even if someone is screaming out into space. They have to scream really loud to appear over the background noise and be screaming in our direction (although we can get pretty sensitive detection especially if they are sending out patterned signals). −Neat.
  • We could also see visible signs from ancient, more advanced races. Concepts of super structures that utilize the energy of their local star would be observable. (we have had some pretty well publicized incorrect interpretations of these things). −It’s still a matter of timing, the ancient civilizations had to have formed at just the right time for us to see, or the structures are durable enough to keep going.  I guess the fun question is does intelligent life persist once it is formed?

How do we Hear?

By Scott Mattison (@FoolsPizza)

Hearing is one of the five traditional senses, but by the time individuals reach 60 years old, one in three will develop significant hearing loss in one or both ears. To treat this hearing loss, we must first have a basic understanding of how sound and our hearing work.

Sounds travel by mechanical vibrations of particles that contact one another. Air, water, and solids all allow for these vibrations to occur; however, in space, no one can hear you scream because outer space is a vacuum with no small particles to transfer sound (sorry Star Wars fans).

The ear is divided into three regions: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. The outer ear is what is most familiar to people, it consists of what we traditionally call ears and a canal that leads to the eardrum. The role of the outer ear is to collect sound and direct it to the middle ear through the ear drum. The unique shape of the ear enables directed sensing of sounds which gives people the ability to determine where sounds come from.

850px-Auditory_ossicles-en.svg
A nice illustration of the middle ear bones (ossicles). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The middle ear is an open, air filled space in the skull that separated from the outer ear by the ear drum. The active portion of the middle ear consists of three bones known as the malleus, incus, and stapes. The malleus is attached to the eardrum, and when the eardrum vibrates in response to sounds, those vibrations are transferred to the malleus. Movements of the malleus move the incus, which in turn move the stapes. The stapes then vibrates against what is called the oval window of the inner ear. The bones of the middle ear form a lever arm that provides an amplification of sound by around 130%. Additional amplification occurs due to the size difference between the eardrum and the oval window of the inner ear. Overall, sound vibrations entering the inner ear are around 18 times larger than sound vibrations against the eardrum. The middle ear also has special muscles that when activated will reduce the intensity of loud sounds. This is called the acoustic reflex and may reduce sound intensity by around a factor of 10. The acoustic reflex protects the delicate structures of the inner ear.

The inner ear is where all the magic of hearing happens. The inner ear takes the mechanical vibrations of sounds and converts them into electrical impulses within the brain. How this actually works is both a lot cooler and a lot more complicated than it might seem.

At their best, humans can hear a range of sound frequencies (think notes on the piano, each note is a different frequency) between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz. 20 Hz is a really deep bass sound and 20,000 Hz (If you can still hear it) is an extremely high pitched whine. As we age, sensory cells in our inner ear begin to die and we lose the ability to hear higher pitched frequencies. By age 20, most males have lost the ability to hear 20,000 Hz, females typically begin to lose higher frequency hearing later into their twenties. Fortunately most of human communication is limited to the 100s of Hz frequency range. The fact that we can differentiate between sounds of different frequencies means that our inner ear has to respond differently to different sound waves.

Nervous cells have a recovery period of 1 – 5 ms after each time they fire, meaning the fastest a nerve could respond is 1000 Hz. If this is true, how can our ears generate nervous signals in response to sounds vibrating up to 20 times faster? The answer to this question is a fun word: Biomechanics. The inner ear, known as the cochlea, consists of 3 fluid-filled tubes that spiral up to a blind end. Typically this is drawn as its own snail-shaped solid, but in reality the cochlea is a fluid filled cavity with the temporal bone of the skull. Sounds enter the cochlea through the oval window into the bottom of the 3 tubes. Sound waves travel to the top of the spiral of the cochlea then back down through the top tube and vibrate against the oval window. This top tube and bottom tube mainly play the role of sound conductor; the nervous tissue is all sitting within the middle tube.

Inner Ear
A rough sketch of the cochlea with the spiral stretched out into a strait line. Sound waves enter through the oval window.  Higher frequency sounds are propagated through the basilar membrane toward the start of the cochlea whereas lower frequency sounds pass through the basilar membrane toward the end.

Between the bottom tube and the middle tube is what is called the basilar membrane. This membrane has changing mechanical properties all the way down its length so that at the entrance of the cochlea it vibrates strongly in response to higher frequency sounds and at the top of the spiraled cochlea the basilar membrane vibrates best in response to lower frequency sounds. Nervous cells in the inner ear respond to the movement of the fluid within that middle tube so when the basilar membrane vibrates more strongly due to higher frequency sounds at the base of the cochlea, the nervous cells in that region know to tell the brain that you just heard a high pitched sound. And when nervous cells respond to movement in the upper part of the cochlea, the brain knows you just heard a lower pitched sound.

1251px-Organ_of_corti.svg
An illustration of what is known as the organ of Corti. This rests on top of the basilar membrane and plays a large role in our hearing. Image source: Wikipedia.

The basilar membrane is a really cool example of biomechanics in of the body solving complex challenges, and Georg von Békésy even won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1961 for his work in in demonstrating its function. However, movement of the basilar membrane alone does not completely account for how well the hearing of humans and other mammals can tell the difference between two frequencies. This is the role of the organ of Corti, which I will introduce in a later blog post. Obviously, there is a bit more to the inner ear than I have explained here, and this is an exciting question for which scientists are still exploring answers!

 

Are Koopas Sex-Role Reversed?

By: Andrew Anderson (@AndersonEvolve)

In my previous post, I presented what koopas are and what forms (phenotypes) are considered the same species.  Of course, after the post I found this page, which lists what character types are within the koopa species complex.  The bad news is I missed a couple—I had no idea there were so many Mario games. The good news is the ones I designated as koopas are on the list and honestly it’s all made up anyways.  In addition, the groups I failed to include aren’t necessary to determine the parental and mating system of koopas.

The first question—what kind of parental care do koopas have?— is straightforward in its answer:  male brood care. Running down the list of familial relations and we see Koops has a father, Koopley, Kolorado has a father, Koopa Krag is a grandfather, and Bowser is just a prolific father.  Notice something missing? No mention of mothers. Even Baby Bowser’s caretaker is Kamek. Now we can debate as to how dedicated these fathers are since most of the time the father is absent, but in most cases the father has some interest in the well-being of his children.  We do know female koopas exist, so why aren’t they seen with offspring? Quite simply, females don’t participate in broodcare, leaving males with those duties. It is true we can’t sex most koopas, but I think that’s because they haven’t reached maturity yet and address that below.  Such a conclusion means that the Koopa Troop is sending young koopas into battle that Mario mercilessly pounds on.

The next question—which sex is under stronger sexual selection (more intense competition for mating and producing offspring)?—is a bit more challenging to answer.  There has been some discussion among biologists about how best to measure and determine sexual selection, but this paper has a good description and mathematical explanation for those who want a little more. I’ve gone over the various things known about koopas and honestly can’t come to a certain conclusion, so I’ll just lay out the evidence for both sides.

Typical sex-roles–Stronger Male Sexual Selection

There are three pieces of evidence that supports the typical sex-roles for koopas.  The first is the variance in reproductive success. Bowser has a bunch of kids, while the other known fathers seem to just have one.  Unequal reproductive output creates opportunities for sexual selection. Bateman proposed that males mating with more females lead to more offspring, but more matings does not produce more offspring in females.  A quick glance across all of Bowser’s kids from Mario 3 and there is a wide variety of forms, suggesting that they may have different mothers. There seems to be some male koopas who mate A LOT, some who mate a little, and some who don’t mate; a clear indication that males could be under sexual selection.

hairkoopa
Male koopas with maturation (secondary sex?) trait of hair. Notice the prolific Bowser’s luxurious locks. Left:  Koopley–Koops father, Top:  Koopa Krag, Bottom:  Bowser

The other evidence is koopas seem to have secondary sexual characteristics.  Look at the known fathers in koopa-dom and the non-fathers. Notice that the fathers have hair, I propose that hair is a trait that shows the males are ready to mate, much like antlers on deer.  Now, there are koopas with hair that don’t have any (known) offspring, but it could be that they are in mating condition but have not found a mate or produced any offspring yet. The more important aspect is there are no successful males without hair.  While there are other traits, like a spiked shell and horns that Bowser has, no other fathers have them and there are other koopas that posses spikes and horns without children, so these traits may not play a role in reproductive success (Bowser is attractive because of his long flowing hair).

immature
Koopas without hair and no known offspring. None of these koopas are mature.

Lastly, the dearth of females suggests the sex ratio is tilted towards males.  In cases where one sex is rarer than the other,the rare sex is able to be choosier about their mate, putting selection on the majority sex.  In most species the split of sexes is 50/50 so the better descriptor is Operational Sex Ratio (OSR) and it counts only individuals who are reproductively available. If one sex takes longer to mature or is engaged in broodcare/pregnancy, it doesn’t count.  Even though male koopas take part in broodcare, Bowser demonstrates that they can brood from multiple females so they aren’t removed from the OSR calculation (something that is common in fishes).

Reversed Sex-Roles: Stronger Female Sexual Selection

So while I have assumed Bowser has lots of kids from multiple females, it is currently Nintendo’s stance that he only has one child–Bowser Jr.  Personally, I disagree since the Koopa Kids and the Koopalings have been called his children in previous games. In any case, if Bowser only has one child then the variance in offspring across males drops precipitously.  Now the number of children any male koopa has is either 1 or 0, which isn’t much variance. In this case, the males don’t seem to get more offspring from multiple females (i.e., little opportunity for sexual selection). This doesn’t mean females are higher, but it certainly undercuts the evidence for males.

300px-Koopalings_-_New_Super_Mario_Bros_U
Koopalings.  Notice the wide variety of forms.  It seems unlikely that all were made from the same pairing.

Alternatively, Bowser could be cuckolded with the possibility he was given all his children by one female although not all of them he sired.  This is known to happen in some polyandrous (multiple males one female) mating systems such as sandpipers and jacanas. The result is Bowser mated with one female, who mated with multiple males, that gave him seven eggs (the Koopalings) for him to care for.  Certainly if you were to look at all the Koopalings many of them bear little resemblance to the King of Koopas. Without genetic tests, we have no way to know the true parentage and thus the mating system for sure–although it would make for a great Maury episode.

female
Female Koopas.  From Left to Right and Top to Bottom:  Pom Pom, Koopie Koo, Wendy O. Koopa, Lakilulu, Kammy Koopa, Holly Koopa, Kylie Koopa.  Notice the females with hair either have a mate or are considered mature. 

Just as reproductively active male koopas have hair, it appears females have the same trait to indicate maturation.  Take a look at the 7 named female koopas: Koopie Koo, Lakilulu, and Pom Pom all have boyfriends and have hair. Holly, Kylie, and Wendy O Koopa are not shown with love interests and do not have hair.  Kammy Koopa has hair and has no shown boyfriend, but given her apparent age she is likely mature. Since both males and females have hair it can’t be a secondary sex trait (it has to be different between the sexes to be a sex trait), but it can be a sign of maturation.  

Both Lakilulu and Koopie Koo are extremely protective of their boyfriends, perhaps this is similar to mate guarding if females are under stronger selection.  While Koopie Koo’s boyfriend, Koops, is not mature (no hair), she encourages him to adventure and come back a stronger koopa. It may be she has secured a mate and wants to be sure he is ready to provide care, a long term strategy if ever there was one.  So why are the female so protective of their mates? We can go back to the operational sex ratio; if males are engaged in brood care and not many are mature yet (very few have hair) then there are less males than females available for mating thereby forcing females to protect the mates they have found.

I would like to point out that it is entirely possible, and even not uncommon, for both sexes to experience sexual selection.  When we talk about the roles though, we are asking which sex undergoes greater selection than the other as that can drive how evolution works.  While I’m not certain, I would like to think the females are under stronger selection; but then again I work with reversed species so I’m biased.  What do you think? Sound off on our twitter @SciSidequests!!